08/26/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Washington at War

The wartime years are depicted as a time of grand national unity, in volumes such as The Greatest Generation. In reality, however, there was great turmoil in this country, in some ways paralleling modern conflicts, in others that foreshadowed current debates.

Thus, within a month of Pearl Harbor, congressional Republicans and conservatives from both parties were criticizing the Roosevelt administration. Sen. Tom Connelly (D-TX) burst forth, "God damn it! Where is the fleet? In hiding? Why doesn't Frank Knox (Sec Navy) tell the whole truth? The President seems to think that all problems can be solved in terms of a dollar. God damn it, that isn't the answer."

Connelly's questions raised issues familiar to modern-day citizens. Was the military guilty of covering up a debacle? Above all, what will government be spending and how will it pay for it? They also criticized President Franklin Roosevelt for what some Congressmen referred to as "dictatorial powers," pushing bills "to cover everything from hell to breakfast." The "thought of giving the architect of the New Deal this power terrified conservatives in Congress," according to Nancy Beck Young, author of Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II, a new volume that challenges the easy, consensus history of this period.

This debate accelerated after the 1942 congressional elections. As early as four days after Pearl Harbor, Senate Minority leader Charles McNary (R-OR) told a party conference, "Of course, we'll run the rascals out. There will be plenty of domestic issues...non-defense spending, waste, and such things as that." Young wrote that, "Voters were restless. Battlefield progress seemed elusive....More important, the public hated living in a command economy with rationing, price control, new government regulations limiting commerce...and rising prices....the Republican Party ran against the domestic war effort, attacking specifically New Deal rhetoric by liberals in Congress." In an election where turnout bottomed (28 percent compared to 50 percent in 1940), the Democrats held onto both houses, although the Republicans made strong gains, picking up 9 seats in the Senate, forty-seven in the House. Despite the fact that war continued for three more years, Young considered this "the first postwar election," because of the issues raised, which would be pursued even more vigorously after the peace treaties. The Republicans sought tax reform, curtailment or elimination of New Deal programs including Social Security, and repudiation of all the president stood for; one opponent said his goal was simply, "less Eleanor". Among the wartime agencies they went after were the Office of War Information, the Office of Price Administration, and the Office of Civil Defense. Rep. Joe Starnes (D-AL) called the OWI's propaganda work "a stench to the nostrils of a democratic people".

There were also ethnic and racial politics. In June 1941 Rep. John Rankin (D-MS) had thundered that "Wall Street and a little group of our international Jewish brethren" were foisting war on the American people. The liberal congressman Wright Patman (D-TX) warned the administration that if it continued its employment policy of giving African-Americans and Jews "an advantage over the other people, that they would soon find themselves carrying the banner for these two minority groups alone." Senator Richard Russell (D-GA) went much further, calling the FEPC (Fair Employment Practices Commission) "the most sickening manifestation of the force social equality and miscegenation of the white and black races on the South." Rankin felt that the country was "in the midst of the greatest war of all time". While he was referring to the military contest, his subtext was clear; this was also about preserving the Jim Crow South.

With the war ending, the New Deal coalition remained in charge and the powers of the Federal government had in fact grown, and would continue to do so. Yet, Young felt that "the conservative coalition was ascendant and the New Deal was in retreat." This shift would cause Harry Truman no end of problems, and foreshadow the right wing movements of future eras.